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Older LGBT+ health inequalities in the UK: setting a research agenda
  1. Sue Westwood1,
  2. Paul Willis2,
  3. Julie Fish3,
  4. Trish Hafford-Letchfield4,5,
  5. Joanna Semlyen6,
  6. Andrew King7,
  7. Brian Beach8,
  8. Kathryn Almack9,
  9. Dylan Kneale10,
  10. Michael Toze11,
  11. Laia Becares12
  1. 1 York Law School, University of York, York, UK
  2. 2 School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
  3. 3 School of Applied Social Sciences, De Montfort University - City Campus, Leicester, Leicestershire, UK
  4. 4 School of Health & Education, Middlesex University, London, UK
  5. 5 School of Social Work & Social Policy, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK
  6. 6 Norwich Medical School, University of East Anglia, Norwich, Norfolk, UK
  7. 7 Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey, UK
  8. 8 International Longevity Centre UK, London, UK
  9. 9 School of Health and Social Work, University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, Hertfordshire, UK
  10. 10 UCL Institute of Education, University College London, London, UK
  11. 11 Lincoln Medical School, University of Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincolnshire, UK
  12. 12 Social Work and Social Care, University of Sussex, Brighton, Sussex, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Sue Westwood, York Law School, University of York, York YO10 5GD, UK; sue.westwood{at}york.ac.uk

Abstract

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans+ (LGBT+) people report poorer health than the general population and worse experiences of healthcare particularly cancer, palliative/end-of-life, dementia and mental health provision. This is attributable to: (a) social inequalities, including ‘minority stress’; (b) associated health-risk behaviours (eg, smoking, excessive drug/alcohol use, obesity); (c) loneliness and isolation, affecting physical/mental health and mortality; (d) anticipated/experienced discrimination and (e) inadequate understandings of needs among healthcare providers. Older LGBT+ people are particularly affected, due to the effects of both cumulative disadvantage and ageing. There is a need for greater and more robust research data to support growing international and national government initiatives aimed at addressing these health inequalities. We identify seven key research strategies: (1) Production of large data sets; (2) Comparative data collection; (3) Addressing diversity and intersectionality among LGBT+ older people; (4) Investigation of healthcare services’ capacity to deliver LGBT+ affirmative healthcare and associated education and training needs; (5) Identification of effective health promotion and/or treatment interventions for older LGBT+ people, and subgroups within this umbrella category; (6) Development of an (older) LGBT+ health equity model; (7) Utilisation of social justice concepts to ensure meaningful, change-orientated data production which will inform and support government policy, health promotion and healthcare interventions.

  • ageing
  • health inequalities
  • social inequalities

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Introduction

The USA has led the way in establishing a lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans+ (LGBT+) health inequalities research agenda1 but there is still much to be done worldwide. LGBT+ people report poorer health than the general population and worse experiences of healthcare particularly cancer,2 palliative/end-of-life,3 dementia4 and mental health provision.5 6 Their poorer health may be attributable to: (a) social inequalities, including ‘minority stress’,7 that is, the cumulative effects of lifelong exposure to prejudice and discrimination; (b) health-risk behaviours (eg, comparatively greater smoking, excessive drug/alcohol use and obesity than non-LGBT+ people) linked to stress adaptation; (c) loneliness and isolation, affecting physical/mental health and mortality.8 Healthcare experiences are associated with anticipated/experienced discrimination and inadequate understandings of needs among healthcare providers.9

In Europe, there is growing governmental interest in promoting an LGBT+ health inequalities research agenda,10 11 but no specific reference to older LGBT+ people (ie, those aged 50+). This is even though they are more likely to be users of healthcare services and there being a range of health inequalities specific to their lives.12 Indeed, older LGBT+ people are affected by both ageing issues common to all older people and issues specific to LGBT+ ageing.13

The generic ageing issues they share with all older people include:14 biological ageing ‘associated with the gradual accumulation of a wide variety of molecular and cellular damage’ leading to ‘a gradual decrease in physiological reserves, an increased risk of many diseases and a general decline in the capacity of the individual’ ultimately resulting in death. Although more people are living for longer and into ‘older’ old age, many are doing so with increasing physical and/or cognitive abilities and associated functional challenges. These in turn mean that many may need support with activities of everyday living (ADLs),15 especially in older old age and may become reliant on others for informal and/or formal care and support. Many older people face living with unmet care and support needs.16 These issues affect older people in different ways and at different stages of ageing. A great many economic, cultural and psychosocial factors affect the extent to which an older person is able to age ‘well’ or not.

Older age also involves changes in social roles and social status, and the need to deal with the loss of (ageing) friends and loved-ones.14 Loneliness and isolation can be one of the perils of older age, impacting physical and mental well-being and ultimately morbidity.17 On the other hand, shifting motivations, priorities and psychological perspectives can also mean that older age can be a time of subjective well-being for many older people.14

In addition to these generic ageing issues, older LGBT+ people are also affected by how their minority sexualities and/or gender identities intersect with ageing. They are more likely than the majority ageing population to live alone, to be childfree (especially older gay men) and estranged from their biological families.18 While many have ‘families of friends’19 these are often of the same generation, developing increased care needs at the same time and being less able to provide reciprocal care. Older gay and bisexual men are deeply affected by HIV/AIDS, through loss of friends in previous decades and increasing numbers with HIV living longer on treatments.20 Older cisgender lesbian and bisexual women live longer than men, but with greater disabilities and age-related health conditions.21 Older trans+ people are concerned about the possible need for personal care if their bodies are not congruent with a binary gender identity and also of being misgendered if they lose mental capacity.22 Older LGBT+ people, especially older bisexual and trans+ people, are more likely to have a history of poor mental health and to be concerned about mental health in older age.12 18

All of these concerns are nuanced by a wide range of intersecting factors, including socioeconomic status; culture, race and ethnicity; disability and religion.23 Some older LGBT+ people are more successful than others in adapting and coping with ageing: those with strong psychological and social resources are likely to enjoy better health and practice more health-promotion behaviours.24 However, the design of effective interventions to promote such positive adaptations is not yet well understood.

The aim of this paper is to stimulate debate about mapping the way forward for research and policy and to propose a European agenda.

Setting a research agenda

Large scale data

Public health agencies rely on mortality/morbidity data to measure health inequalities, shape policies, target interventions and audit outcomes, including in relation to meeting statutory equality duties. There is a lack of large-scale quantitative data on older LGBT+ health, partly due to a lack of monitoring for sexual orientation/gender identity in routine healthcare services data collection, which urgently needs to be addressed. Other solutions include ensuring LGBT+ health research is older-age inclusive and older age health research is LGBT+ inclusive. Secondary analysis of large-scale health survey data sets pooled from multiple separate data sets is also an emergent way of creating larger samples for analysis.25

Comparative data

Understanding older LGBT+ health inequalities compared with the majority population requires robust comparative data. Very few studies have produced such data. Older LGBT+ people should be included in research in sufficient numbers to allow meaningful analysis. This means ensuring that a proportionate and statistically significant number of LGBT+ people should be included in all ageing research, and a proportionate and statistically significant number of older people should be included in research with LGBT+ adults. Making this an essential funding requirement would ensure that this is factored in to all research projects.

LGBT+ diversity and intersectionality

There has been very little comparison of the differential health experiences among older LGBT+ subgroups across interacting and intersecting social differences (eg, age, gender, class, ethnicity).25 Studies which employ more purposive sampling would provide greater insights into both diversity and intersectionality.26 This would enable policymakers, commissioners and providers to better direct health interventions towards specific LGBT+ subgroups.

Improving access to healthcare services

There is now a body of work identifying barriers and facilitators to older LGBT+ people accessing care and support services. However, less is understood about ‘healthcare stereotype threat (which) is the threat of being personally reduced to group stereotypes that commonly operate within the healthcare domain’.27 This is particularly in relation to older LGBT+ people9 who are known to avoid healthcare services due to concerns about prejudice and discrimination. Increased knowledge could improve healthcare professional’s competency and confidence, resource allocation, inclusion in healthcare education and developing a standard/quality framework for training.

Improving the quality of healthcare services

Research is needed to determine whether/how healthcare services’ policies, procedures and practices are LGBT+ inclusive, and to evaluate training/interventions which develop healthcare staff competencies.28 29 Specifically, healthcare staff should be able to:

  • Understand older LGBT+ people’s lives, histories and legal landmarks, and the health impacts of growing up under pathologising and criminalising regimes;

  • Understand how prior experiences of religious and/or medical ‘cures’ (often forcible) can inform older LGBT+ people’s fears about engaging with medical services and/or faith-based healthcare staff;

  • Understand and respect older LGBT+ people’s relationship networks, including their ‘families of friends’, giving same-sex partners equal status and recognition as different-sex partners and promoting LGBT+ community ties;

  • Understand and respond sensitively to the personal care concerns of those older transwomen and transmen whose bodies may not align with their gender identity;

  • Confidently challenge homophobia, biphobia and/or transphobia on the part of staff, other healthcare users, their families and friends.

Improving health promotion interventions

Few empirical studies have explored health promotion interventions for older LGBT+ people.30 It is essential to understand what works best for whom, under what circumstances and also how allied service providers (eg, housing/home care) can work inclusively to amplify what works well and promote older LGBT+ people’s coping, health and well-being. This is relevant for all minority groups. Issues to be considered specifically in relation to older LGBT+ people include investigating the following: promoting individual, social and community supports and coping strategies; delivering health promotion campaigns which do not assume heterosexuality/cisgender identities and which explicitly include older LGBT+ people; delivering health promotion campaigns specifically targeted at older LGBT+ people, for example, addressing sexual health among older gay men, screening for cervical cancer among older lesbians and screening for breast cancer among transmen.

Developing an (older) LGBT+ health equity model

The WHO has developed a social justice framework for the interactions between social inequalities and health. Yet despite compelling evidence of LGBT+ health inequalities, this framework fails to include them. We support calls for the WHO to include both sexual orientation and gender identity as social determinants of health and in all analyses of social inequalities and health31 32 including in older age. Additionally, research should support the development of health equity models specific to older LGBT+ people.33

Aiming for substantive social justice

US, Canadian, Australian and European research, policymaking and healthcare delivery agendas have come a long way, as evidenced by the growing number of initiatives aimed at LGBT+ health inequalities. In order to achieve substantive social justice beyond a box-ticking exercise, we must produce meaningful research to support these agendas, particularly in relation to older LGBT+ people.

Conclusion

Inclusion of older LGBT+ people and their advocates is essential in developing this agenda. The provision of care and support to older LGBT+ people is a ‘litmus test’34 for how well healthcare agencies deliver services to minority groups. This research agenda takes us one step closer towards passing that test.

What is already known on this subject

  • LGBT+ people report poorer health than the general population and worse experiences of healthcare particularly cancer, palliative/end-of-life, dementia and mental health provision. This is attributable to: (a) social inequalities, including ‘minority stress’; (b) associated health-risk behaviours (eg, smoking, excessive drug/alcohol use, obesity); (c) loneliness and isolation, affecting physical/mental health and mortality; (d) anticipated/experienced discrimination and inadequate understandings of needs among healthcare providers. Older LGBT+ people are particularly affected, due to the effects of both cumulative disadvantage and ageing. There is a need for greater and more robust research data to support growing international and national government initiatives aimed at addressing these health inequalities.

What this study adds

  • We identify seven key research strategies: (1) Production of large data sets; (2) Routine inclusion of LGBT+ people in ageing research and older people in LGBT+ research; (3) Exploration of diversity and intersectionality among cohorts of LGBT+ older people; (4) Investigation of healthcare services’ capacity to deliver LGBT+ affirmative healthcare and associated education and training needs; (5) Identification of effective health promotion and/or treatment interventions for older LGBT+ people, and subgroups within this umbrella category; (6) Development of an (older) LGBT+ health equity model; (7) Utilisation of social justice concepts to ensure meaningful, change-orientated data production which will inform and support government policy, health promotion and healthcare interventions.

Acknowledgments

Our thanks to the anonymous reviewers who made some particularly helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.

References

Footnotes

  • Twitter Sue Westwood @Woman4Equality

  • Contributors This article is informed by extensive collaborative work involving all of the co-authors for a research grant application submitted to the Wellcome Trust, funded by a Research Pump Priming Award from the University of York. The award supported a literature review and networking conference, the focus of which was older LGBT+ health inequalities in the UK. The co-authors each attended the conference and presented papers at it. The lead author then drafted the first version of the article submitted here. It was circulated to all of the co-authors, each of whom provided extensive feedback both generic and on issues specific to their areas of expertise. Subsequent drafts were re-circulated on multiple occasions, further feedback was provided by all of the co-authors, and the final draft (submitted) was approved by all authors. The co-authors contributed as follows: PW: substantial contributions to the conception of the article and thematic analysis; feedback on drafting and re-drafting. Made a particular contribution about health and social care provision about which he has published previously. JF: substantial contributions to the conception of the article and thematic analysis; feedback on drafting and re-drafting. Made a particular contribution about heteronormative healthcare about which she has published extensively. THF: substantial contributions to the conception of the article and thematic analysis; feedback on drafting and re-drafting; made a particular contribution about social care provision about which she has published previously. JS: substantial contributions to the conception of the article and thematic analysis; feedback on drafting and re-drafting; made a particular contribution about secondary data analysis in LGBT+ health research about which she has published previously. AK: substantial contributions to the conception of the article and thematic analysis; feedback on drafting and re-drafting; made a particular contribution about LGBT+ ageing about which he is a leading UK expert. BB: substantial contributions to the conception of the article and thematic analysis; feedback on drafting and re-drafting; made a particular contribution about policy implications. KA: substantial contributions to the conception of the article and thematic analysis; feedback on drafting and re-drafting; made a particular contribution about both LGBT+ end of life carer and LGBT+ ageing about which she is a leading UK expert. DK: substantial contributions to the conception of the article and thematic analysis; feedback on drafting and re-drafting; made a particular contribution about methodology having recently led a UK systematic literature review. MT: substantial contributions to the conception of the article and thematic analysis; feedback on drafting and re-drafting; made a particular contribution in relation to older transgender health issues, in which field he is an emerging scholar. LB: substantial contributions to the conception of the article and thematic analysis; feedback on drafting and re-drafting; made particular contribution on big data analysis.

  • Funding This article was funded by a University of York (UK) Research Priming grant, Feb 2019 – July 2019 Westwood, S., Fish, J., Willis, P., Birks, Y. Older LGBTQ Health and Care Inequalities in the UK - Developing a collaborative research network.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.